Monthly Archives: October 2015

Two Castles (part 1)

… but castles built on sand!

This is the first of two posts on the power of the human imagination. The second is on the economic theory I call free market fundamentalism. But this one is on:


I will look at this through two very different perspectives: architecture and philosophy.


I am what some may think is a contradiction. I am a humanist who enjoys walking around churches and cathedrals (well, some* at least). I love a good cathedral: the sense of space, tranquillity, the sun streaming though stained glass, the lofty, vaulted ceiling. All these combine to produce a mixture of joy, wellbeing and a haven of calm secluded from the frenzied pace of 21st century living.

I have sometimes tried to imagine these great buildings at the time of their construction. Whole armies of people – architects, stonemasons, carpenters, artists and more – working to a common plan. Perhaps 4 or 5 generations of these workers spent their entire working lives on these awesome structures, the early generations never living long enough to see the finished design. The buildings themselves would tower over the modest mediaeval dwellings to a greater degree than they do in today’s cities.

Lincoln Cathedral
Lincoln Cathedral

A memorable occasion was a visit to the beautiful Lincoln Cathedral one Saturday afternoon when my wife and I were taking a weekend break in that delightful city. By sheer luck, we entered just as a concert of religious and secular music by a barber-shop quartet a capella was starting in the choir of the cathedral. The acoustics were fabulous and, combined with the inspiring surroundings, the effect was – dare I say? – magical.

These great buildings stand as a proud monument to the skills and imagination of people long since dead and they continue to bring awe, joy and peace of mind today.

*Two counter-examples spring to mind. The first was an overbearing gothic monstrosity in Prague, with walls dripping with artefacts in gold-leaf and marble. The overall effect, I presume, was to intimidate and bully the flock into believing in the church’s teachings. The sense of claustrophobia was oppressive. I came out of there muttering comments about “architectural fascism”. The second, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the obscene excrescence built in the middle of the elegant Great Mosque in Cordoba. I rate this as the worst act of architectural vandalism I have ever encountered. Both are exemplars of what I call “Catholic tat”. I feel truly sorry for anyone impressed by these disgusting shows of wealth and power.


As a non-believer, I continue to be fascinated by the philosophical (and theological) reasoning given by religious apologists for their belief in God. This led me to sign up for a weekend course at Cambridge on the question of “God and evil”. I didn’t know what “theodicy**” meant until recently: I’ve now read quite a few of them, together with their critics’ responses.

Saint Augustine
St Augustine

What has struck me about these theodicies is their sheer complexity and sophistication. The arguments get more and more nit-picking as the meaning of words and concepts are dissected to an ever-finer degree. The CVs and credentials of protagonists on both sides are often highly impressive. These sometimes towering exercises in thought are the metaphysical equivalent of the physical structures of the great churches and cathedrals discussed above.

But the whole enterprise of theodicy has left me with two thoughts. Firstly, building a whole structure of ideas on what I believe to be a false premise reminds me of a parent teaching a child not to lie. Children, having told a little “fib”, usually get found out. On cross-examination by a doubting parent, they have to elaborate a whole pile of further, less and less plausible, lies to maintain consistency in their story. One can see the relief on a child’s face when they finally confess the truth: the sheer effort of lying is much harder than telling the truth in the first place.

This leads me to my second insight. My own conviction that God doesn’t exist essentially comes down to the attraction, for me, of Occam’s Razor. Simplifying slightly, this principle can be stated as follows: given two alternative explanations for a phenomenon, the simpler is to be preferred. This is because it is more likely to be true. Given the choice of explanations for evil between the complexity of any theodicy and the alternative that God does not exist, the latter wins hands down.

**It’s basically a reasoned argument put forward in an attempt to reconcile the existence of evil in the world with the existence of an all-seeing, all-powerful, perfectly good deity.


What both these examples illustrate is the sheer scale and complexity of the “castles” – physical and intellectual – that can be built by the human imagination, even if their “foundations” are made of sand. (Not literally, of course, in the case of the cathedrals!) Even so, as I have shown, they can bring great benefit and happiness to humankind. But they can bring great misery and suffering, too, as I plan to demonstrate in Two Castles (part 2).


Buying Power

In a recent blog post, Cat and Mouse, I discussed the frustrations of buying gas and electricity in the pseudo-market of 21st century Britain. In this post, I am looking at buying power of a different type: political power.

UK Government cabinet
Policies for sale here

The recent ludicrous vanity project by billionaire Michael Ashcroft, his unauthorised “biography” Call Me Dave, made tabloid headlines. These highlighted some ridiculous uncorroborated claim about Cameron and a pig. Like the subject of the biography, I treat the story with the contempt it deserves.

But most newspapers seemed to have missed the most shocking aspect of this story: the casual assumption by Ashcroft that, by donating vast sums to the Tory party, this assured him of a key role in Cameron’s government. The unremarked assumption that money buys political power went largely unchallenged.

From fundraising dinners during the Conservative Party Conference, through the notorious Black and White Ball each February, to the Donor Clubs on their own party website, the Tories make it clear they’re up for sale. And of course, there’s that perennial unreformed bastion of patronage, the House of Lords, where party donations and seats are often “coincidentally” linked.

So when a politician next makes the claim that Britain’s political system is one of the least corrupt in the world, think carefully before you accept their reassurances.


Nasty, Indeed

It’s ironic that it was Theresa May who reminded us, at their party conference, that the Conservatives are the Nasty Party. It was the same Theresa May who, a decade earlier, had issued a warning to her party that they were in danger of being so branded.

Theresa May speechThe overall tone of her speech, presumably part of the jockeying for leadership after Cameron stands down, was very ill-judged indeed. Even the Telegraph agrees! There are enough bigots, racists, xenophobes and worse in the country without the Home Secretary of the day feeding their prejudices. It was also unforgiveable to include a downright lie that immigrants do not bring economic benefits to the country, contradicting a whole range of well-researched reports on the subject.

When it comes to immigration, the Tories, of course, have form:

On the last point, I did some simple maths based upon Cameron’s cynically calibrated offer to take 4000 (of the 6 million) Syrian refugees a year. The local authority area where I live has a population of 160,000 and 76 state schools. If we took our fair share of these refugees, we would need to take just 11 Syrians a year into our population. Assuming one in four is of school age, we would need to find just one extra school place per 25 schools in the area. Hardly a threat to social cohesion!

If May is so bothered by threats to social cohesion, she might like to ponder the medium-term effects of making 3 million of our lowest paid working families £1300 a year worse off through reductions to tax credits.

Nasty, indeed.


Not Above the Law

Last week, the government sneaked* out, with no publicity, a change to the ministerial code of conduct. A bit boring, don’t you think? But read on…

The specific change relates to a requirement for ministers to comply with the law: the phrase deleted states “including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice”. Senior legal academics and the shadow lord chancellor have described the change as “shocking”, ”staggering” and “a slap to Magna Carta”.

A Cabinet Office spokesman shrugged off the change as a simplification which changes nothing. However, a Tory party policy document had promised a rewriting of the code “to remove any ambiguity … about the duty of ministers to follow the will of Parliament in the UK”.

European Court of Human RightsFollowing Tory proposals to opt out of the European Convention on Human Rights currently under consideration in the Ministry of Justice, this paints a seriously worrying picture of a government which does not wish to be bound by the standards of international law. This is made worse given that the ECHR has British – and Conservative – fingerprints all over its conception and drafting. Winston Churchill was an early proponent of the Convention, a former Conservative Home Secretary and lawyer, David Maxwell-Fyfe, was chair of the drafting committee.

The same “Britain is special” thinking applies in the continuing demand for British exceptionalism in the rules applying to member countries of the EU. When the going gets tough at home, there’s nothing David Cameron likes better than to lecture foreigners on how they should run their countries. Banging on about so-called “British Values” is part of the same mindset.

What is it about this present bunch of government ministers that makes them think Britain is so special that the rules only apply to everyone else?

I suppose if you’ve benefited from an education which instils an attitude of entitlement to boss everyone else around, this type of thinking comes all too easily. Our wonderful unwritten constitution, where the government of the day can make up the rules as it goes along, is also a contributory factor. A good recent example is Cameron adding a load of Tory peers to the House of Lords, swelling its ranks to record numbers – after stating previously there were too many members in the Lords. This was based on a new “rule” he’d just made up stating that the Lords should better reflect the composition of the Commons.

But the price paid for our government’s attitude, in terms of loss of goodwill and of any moral standing that Britain may have in the world, is huge – and very hard to win back, once lost.

Coupled with the sycophancy shown to the Chinese government, with its appalling human rights record, we can only expect to see Britain being vilified, ridiculed and simply ignored on the world stage. So much for the government’s claim about making Britain “Great”!

*It sneaked past the government’s own Attorney General, who was obviously unaware of the change at a speech he gave at an International Law Conference later the same day!


I Am a Dalek! Exterminate!

In last Saturday’s episode of Doctor Who, the Doctor’s sidekick Clara was trapped inside the metal shell of a dalek. Whenever she tried to tell her friends it was really her inside, the dalek voice said “I am a dalek!” Whenever she tried to say she was a friend, or some similar phrase of non-aggression, the voice said “Exterminate!”

Clara Oswald and DalekImmediately after Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at the Labour Party conference, Justice Secretary Michael Gove was quoted as saying: “Labour have confirmed that it is a threat to our national security, our economic security and to the security of every family in Britain”. Which reminded me of something…

On the day Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour Party leadership, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said: “Labour is now a serious risk to our nation’s security, our economy’s security and your family’s security.” A few days before that, David Cameron had said that Labour “pose a clear threat to the financial security of every family in Britain“.

Beginning to sound familiar?

For months after the 2010 election, coalition ministers repeated over and over the lying mantra that Labour was responsible for the global financial collapse in 2007-8. Two years later, an opinion poll showed that 60% of the British public agreed with this lie.

I do hope that the Labour Party, its sympathisers and any who care about the truth will not let the Tories get away with this trick for the second time.

Add to this the fact that every Treasury policy announcement from Osborne since the last election – and several before – seems to be aimed at one thing. They all seem to be based not on what would be good for the British economy, but on how we can lay a political trap for our opponents. The aim is to destroy totally the credibility of any dissenting voices, extending the Conservatives’ “entitlement” to rule for ever.

Or, to put it more simply: “I am a dalek! Exterminate!”